With Ryder Cup pressure on, Fowler steps up in Rd. 1

By Will GrayAugust 25, 2016, 8:20 pm

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – At this point, there’s no sense in beating around the bush.

Rickie Fowler came to The Barclays knowing full well that it was time to deliver. Long viewed as one of the faces of American golf, his Ryder Cup chances stood in peril heading into the final week of automatic qualification, the unexpected byproduct of a disappointing summer.

It’s a daunting task, knowing that a two-year window comes down to your performance over a handful of weeks. It’s the type of pressure that has caused players in the past to crumble, and will undoubtedly be the undoing of would-be stars in the future.

For Fowler, though, the raised stakes may have been just what he needed to kick-start his stagnant game.

“I don’t mind it,” Fowler said. “I’ve always liked kind of being put up against the wall, in a corner, and having that on me.”

The wall and the corner are both very much in sight after a stretch that has included only one top-10 finish in the last nine starts for Fowler. Viewed as a lock for Hazeltine only a few months ago, he entered this week at No. 12 in the American standings - on the outside looking in - and likely relying on a pick next month from Davis Love III to make the team.

Fowler even added last week’s Wyndham Championship in a last-ditch effort to move up the standings, but a T-22 finish didn’t do the trick.

So he came to Bethpage Black needing to turn things around in a hurry, and he promptly delivered a 4-under 67 that put him within a shot of the early lead. After the round, Fowler stepped to the microphone and answered a series of questions that began, predictably, with the Ryder Cup.

The Barclays: Articles, photos and videos

“That’s the No. 1 priority coming into the year. I’d say that’s always one of the main goals for sure coming into a Ryder Cup year. Even in the off year, you’re thinking about it,” he said. “You’d be lying if you’re saying there’s not more (pressure). Yeah, I’m thinking about it. The other guys are thinking about it. So if it’s even on your mind at all, not that it’s pressure in a way, but it’s more to think about.”

They’re comments that likely garner a hearty fist pump from American fans desperate to celebrate a victory in the biennial event, and they certainly don’t hurt his cause for a potential captain’s pick from Love. But they also reinforce the fact that Fowler has a tendency to deliver when the margin for error is the slimmest.

There was the late birdie run to win The Players last year, then the emphatic 72nd-hole approach in Scotland and the late chip-in earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. Some guys wilt under the bright lights, but Fowler appears to seek out their warmth.

“I think he’s always responded to pressure situations down the stretch, and a little bit of sense of urgency,” said caddie Joe Skovron.

The recent results have been even more frustrating for Fowler simply because the culprit has been so clear. The ball-striking that has made him an elite player remains ever-present, but a balky putter has simply failed to cooperate.

There have been spurts where it all came together, sure. Fowler started well at Baltusrol, and he notably spun a front-nine 29 during the third round of the Olympics. But the consistency required to turn nine holes into 18, or to turn one round into four, has evaporated.

“It’s been tough. I mean, personally, me knowing exactly how close it is, and it’s a really fine line,” he said. “The difference between Rio Saturday and Sunday, I swung it better going out on Sunday, and I shoot 29 on Saturday and I’m over par (on Sunday). I can’t remember what I shot, but it was not 29.”

Even just last week in Greensboro, Fowler hit 60 of 72 greens in regulation but never factored and didn’t shoot lower than 67 on the par-70 layout.

It’s a cautionary tale that could still apply to this week’s outcome, but Fowler has been fervent in his belief that his game has not been as far off as the results indicate. A Tuesday session with putting guru Paul Vizanko, with whom Fowler has worked since he was 14, paved the way for a 28-putt performance in the opening round.

“It’s close,” Fowler said. “I hit a lot of good putts today, some were just mis-reads. It was nice to make a couple and get off to a solid start.”

Love said last week at Sedgefield that he wants hot hands on his 12-man squad, hoping to head to Hazeltine with as much momentum as possible. But he’ll also be looking for players who are able to handle the heat one of golf’s biggest stages, calm their nerves and put forth a strong performance when it matters the most.

Consider Thursday’s round a gentle nudge from Fowler to Love, a reminder that he just might be the right man to suit up and deliver next month.

“I think the Ryder Cup speaks for itself. It’s the greatest team event we have. It’s arguably the best event we have all year, or every two years,” Fowler said. “It’s a special event and something I don’t want to miss out on.”

Getty Images

DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

Getty Images

Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

Getty Images

Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

Getty Images

CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)